Our generation of young people are dealing with big problems which threaten our future. It often feels like we have no choice but to lead the fight against the climate crisis, or to have the hard conversations around mental health because no one else will, and in many ways COVID-19 and 2020 showed just how important that work is. We are often the ones pushing these conversations in new directions and tackling problems that previous generations might have considered tricky or too difficult in the past.
At the same time though, these conversations can still be really tricky, particularly when we get into the politics of it all. Despite last year for youth activism, not everyone was equally involved or engaged. You might be super passionate about what you’re doing, but not want to always be ‘the political friend’ in your group.
That’s what we have found in our time at It’s Not A Compliment, an organisation fighting to eradicate street harassment and guarantee everyone the right to freedom of movement. Even though we all have our personal and political reasons for feeling passionate about this topic, it is not easy talking about it with friends.
Censoring the political out of the personal
As Carol Hanisch so famously said, ‘the personal is political’. And sometimes, the political is as personal as it gets. Sometimes we can feel more exposed or vulnerable talking about things like race and gender than about our love lives.
When we talk about street harassment or other forms of discrimination with friends, we often find ourselves only talking about the surface-level aspect of experience: how it made us feel in the moment, our immediate reactions, what we did afterwards. All of this can be uncomfortable enough to share already. However, delving any deeper into the systems of oppression that underpin these experiences feels like a whole other level of discomfort, just a bit too political for a Saturday morning brunch.
Almost everyone can agree that discrimination feels terrible but talking about the bigger picture can leave more room for disagreement. Just like people avoid politics at family gatherings in order to keep the peace, we’ve sometimes avoided talking about activism with our friends. But again, the personal is political. Unpacking personal experiences and how they drive us is important, but it is also important to connect that with the bigger picture, in our case the societal norms that trivialise street harassment. After all, that is what our work is all about!
Tips for starting conversations
Here are some ideas for making these conversations a little easier:
Appeal to or connect with emotion
“When this happened to me, I felt [upset/angry/etc.]. That’s why I’m passionate about [changing things], so that other people don’t have to feel this way.”
Not everyone can relate to a specific experience, but emotions are pretty universal. Making that connection between your emotions and your political views can be the first step to broadening the conversation out.
Make connections and be patient
“Even though this happened to me in this way, it could affect heaps of other people as well [including…]. It’s a bigger problem than we might think.”
You might be the only connection someone has to a broader societal problem—they might not have had the same exposure as you or met anyone else who’s had that experience.
Allow people to meet you halfway
“I’m not saying you need to agree with me or instantly become an activist. As long as you understand what I’m doing and why, that’s all!”
At the end of the day, you might not be able to change everyone’s minds, but that is not necessarily always the point. What is more important is that your friends understand what matters to you and respect why it matters. After all, our political views are part of who we are and how we experience the world. Accepting and supporting that is what friendship is all about.
Even if you cannot fully get someone on board, that is also ok! Having these conversations is a start, and you should give yourself a pat on the back even just for trying. These conversations can still be pretty tough, but we hope these starters can help make them just a little bit easier.
Mark Yin, Cheryl Tan and Alex Lee are volunteers at It’s Not A Compliment, an organisation campaigning for street justice and safer public spaces. Find out about upcoming campaigns and events, including their ‘Let’s Get Uncomfortable’ workshop series, on Facebook and Instagram or by subscribing to their newsletter.
Photo credit: Nynno Bel-Air